In a Controlled Environment The New Agricultural Revolution

Controlled environment agriculture is the global agricultural sector’s answer to the challenges posed by climate change. Countries such as Japan, China, and the Netherlands are leading this new technology, but Latin America is also looking to enter the race and the first steps are being taken in Panama.

By: Juan Abelardo Carles Rosas
Photos: Carlos Eduardo Gómez

An old article has been making the rounds, claiming that the Chinese word for crisis, wei-chi, is translated as a combination of “danger” and “change.” While this isn’t actually true, the idea is very appropriate when we talk about the current state of agriculture. There is “danger”: climate change is making crops more vulnerable to natural disasters, such as droughts, floods, and disease, and it is increasingly difficult to synchronize growth cycles with the changing seasons. In addition, more and more water sources and land are being polluted. The rural population is migrating to urban areas, abandoning plots of land that, paradoxically, are turned into housing developments. The human population is then concentrated in mega-cities with unstoppable growth, and food sources get farther and farther away from the urban centers.

But “change” seems to be brewing, more quickly and decisively than many might believe. Agricultural entrepreneurs are pinning their hopes on a promising new system of production called controlled environment agriculture. As its name implies, it involves reproducing optimal growing conditions for crops useful to humans in an enclosed environment. It is a natural extension of the old, classic greenhouse, modernized with the latest technology. Currently, the leading agricultural enterprises in this field are in Japan, China, the Netherlands, and some areas of the United States, but Latin America is also on the verge of entering the race and the first steps are being taken in Panama.

In the canal country, the first International Congress on Controlled Environment Agriculture was held last May. David Proenza and Manuel Fernández, the event organizers and members of the Foundation for the Development of Controlled Environment Agriculture (FDCEA), have experienced the “danger” and are examples of the “change.” Both are agricultural exporters and for years they concentrated on the cultivation of watermelon and cantaloupe, among other products, primarily for positioning in European markets. “But after three years of losses, I woke up and decided to act, looking for new trends in agriculture,” recalls Proenza. “During this global search, I read an article about the University of Chiba, in Japan. The government of that country donated $130 million to form a partnership between industry, academia and the government.”

In 2010 the Japan Plant Factory Association (JPFA) was established as a result of this partnership. Its president, Dr. Toyoki Kozai, an international authority on the subject who has researched crops in controlled environments since 1970, was one of the most anticipated speakers at the Congress. In 1994, Kozai began developing technologies for the management of seeds that today are used in the three hundred plant factories (as these growing facilities are called) in Japan. Currently he is researching artificial lighting for the crops. “Lighting, especially the use of LED technology (light-emitting diode), is one of the fastest-developing aspects of controlled environment agriculture in recent years,” Kozai explains. In effect, the spectral combinations of light profile the nutritional contents of fruit, making them richer in specific vitamins and minerals. “Another aspect is marketing, because this technology allows growers to meet consumer demand in terms of variety, shape, and flavor of the vegetables grown in unprecedented ways,” the scientist added.

The FDCEA partnered with the University of Chiba and the JPFA almost from the beginning, sharing experiences and testing their technologies in tropical environments. “Today we are working with the Panamanian government and international organizations. We want to establish partnerships with universities and research centers, so this technology can be brought to Panama and our producers can begin to be trained,” says Fernández. “Before, this agriculture was only conceptual, but now it is a reality and we want to bring this knowledge to Panama and Latin America.” As part of this effort, for example, there is an agreement between the University of Chiba and the University of Panama for a student and teacher exchange.

For its part, the Foundation opened a Vertical Farming Research and Development Center in the community of Río Hato, in the center of the country. This area is part of the region of Panama that has been hardest hit by climate change, and you might think it is the worst place to try new farming techniques. But here, in an abandoned fruit packing and export installation, there is a space that resembles a biotech lab, where a lab coat, boots, and sterilized gloves are required. Varieties of lettuce crops are grouped together in the first room, stacked in racks that reach several yards high and different types of lighting are applied.

“In traditional agriculture, you can plant about ten heads of lettuce in a square yard, while in a yard of a medium or high tech greenhouse, you can plant up to sixteen heads of lettuce and, in both cases, harvest and sell them after 14 to 16 weeks. In a vertical farm, we can produce multilevel planting, and in the same space we can have nearly 420 heads of lettuce ready to be harvested and sold in thirty-five days. We can obtain, in a little more than one thousand square yards, what in a greenhouse would take nearly 15 acres, or 49 if it is traditional planting,” Proenza and Fernández say, while we tour the site.

The increased useable space and the speed with which the crops germinate outweigh the high initial costs in infrastructure and advanced technology that these installations require. And if they are placed in cities, or near them, as in the case of Japan and China, savings in transportation can be added to the above two factors. “If you produce here,” explains Kozai, pointing to a building, “and the final shopping destination is only 300 feet away, your transportation and storage costs are significantly reduced.” The winning equation is completed by the fact that these vegetables do not require agrochemicals, since they’re grown in controlled environments. “It’s a healthy vegetable, free of chemicals, of such a quality that we can sell it at a better price than the conventionally grown one,” concludes Kozai.

So, if this technology can recreate the environmental conditions needed to grow vegetables and fruits anywhere, what role does Panama play in its distribution? Why not start in countries with more agricultural potential and tradition, such as Argentina or Brazil? The answer lies in Panama’s already established role as a logistical center for the hemisphere. The country attracts 144 maritime trade routes to its interoceanic canal, and its fleet of port cranes is larger than the rest of all the Latin American countries combined. The country also has the best air travel connectivity in the region. For Carlos Him —professor at the University of Panama and specialist in the agricultural use of soils and water, the possibilities are clear: “Panama has an available transportation and logistical hub, a center where products can be transported by land, sea, and air, and given that controlled environment agriculture tends to be more vertical than horizontal, the country can become a center of cultivation and distribution for those products.”

In fact, Panama has consolidated its position as a research, development and distribution center for these technologies. The FDCEA and the inter-university Chiba-Panama agreement share that objective. “The importance of the Congress is that we have had the opportunity to interact with people from China, Japan, the Netherlands and many other countries that use controlled environment agriculture for various reasons, such as the climate,” Him continues. “We don’t have the winter or the deserts that they have in some places, so this is not so much about applying but rather seeing what adjustments we would have to make in our countries. It’s a very new technology and everyday there is something new. You have to be constantly researching, knowing what is available, to achieve better production.” Kozai adds “there are many countries in Asia, Africa, and South America that have a climate similar to that of Panama. If we are successful in what we do in Panama, we can develop the technology and business in these countries.”